Thursday, March 4, 2010

Robin Skelton's IN THIS POEM I AM: SELECTED POETRY

Robin Skelton wrote more than one hundred books, including about thirty collections of poetry. Many people don't read that much in a lifetime. Many of those volumes were self-published as chapbooks or limited-edition releases, and other poems were distributed as broadsides, so much of his work must have been difficult to obtain and survey.

I found myself agreeing with many of Skelton's views in Memoirs Of A Literary Blockhead: the importance of lively poetry readings; anti-provincialism; imaginative administration ( oxymoron?). But I strongly disagree with his (and others') assertion that future critics and editors can, and should be able to, sort out the nuggets from the dirt. Even if that were possible (who has the time?), it's rather rude to expect someone or many someones to ingest a whale and spit back a few minnows (or in the case of a great poet, a freezer full of sockeye salmon). And of course, there are a lot of other thirty-plus-book authors on the go, so whale is frequently on the menu. So a tip of the hat to Harold Rhenisch for providing a remarkable postprandial buffet burp in editing from Skelton's bloated corpus.

I confess to previously dipping into the Vancouver Islander's verse in sporadic dabs, so it was fruitful to have a condensed collection spanning forty-one years. To note that Skelton is a poet of the interior (the soul, not the Chilcotin) is an understatement. He has depths to plumb when art meets experience: "We almost touch/but, swimmers pulled apart/by arbitrary tides,/are swept out on the night" (from "Night Poem, Vancouver Island"). Unfortunately, subtle movements of a soul are notoriously difficult to translate to a stranger via squiggly type. Many of the poems fade into the substratosphere when the inevitable abstract "someone", "solitude", "light", "time", "destiny", "death", "words", "thoughts", "world", "poems" or commonplace "stone", "tree", "sky", "cloud", "door" make some of their frequent visitations. And it's too bad. Because Skelton, when he wants to, can create, or recreate, a sharp and mesmerising tactile experience. Check out "Land Without Customs" and "A Ballad of Billy Barker". Still, and despite having influenced a run of West Coast poetry of aura over flora, fog over smog, I'd rather have those interior moods, however vague they may often be, than the pretentious, emotion-starved lines from those of the Vancouver academic set.

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